While attending primary school in Harthill I had two sporting heroes and neither of them was Scottish. One was Muhammad Ali, whom I was fortunate enough to meet many years later, and the other was the incomparable George Best.
My experience of football in the flesh back then was restricted to Broomfield when my father or older brother would take me to see Airdrieonians.
Scotland had no shortage of gifted footballers at that time and I was fortunate enough to see players like Willie Henderson and Jim Baxter grace the hallowed turf, as well as Eddie Turnbull’s excellent Hibs side of the early 1970s. Jimmy Johnstone was a particular favourite, although the first time I saw Celtic at Broomfield he was one of the eight of the Lisbon Lions who played out a 0-0 draw.
None of them, however, could hold a candle to the genius of Best. I saw him play several times towards the end of his career, when his legs had gone but the football brain remained active. It was heartbreaking watching him play for Hibs, threading passes into spaces where better players would have been.
Back in his Manchester United pomp, though, he was, for my money, the greatest of them all.
He was quick, strong and fearless in a way that Lionel Messi does not need to be. Best’s uncanny sense of balance and two-footedness saw him glide across mudheap pitches while eluding thuggish defenders' attempts to halt him through fair means or foul.
The Irishman was a phenomenal dribbler and a great goalscorer as well as a scorer of great goals, in possession of a variety of finishing guaranteed to make most goalkeepers look foolish.
He could also tackle and his aerial ability was such that he could have comfortably filled in at centre-half if that wouldn’t have been a waste of his extravagant talents.
I can still picture him racing from the halfway line in a midweek League Cup tie against Chelsea at Old Trafford, the ball glued to his boots.
Beating one opponent, he then had to contend (as he so often did) with Ron “Chopper” Harris – a defender who literally would not have a career in today’s game – as he attempted to cut him in half.
George shrugged off the assault and carried on, dipping his shoulder to send goalkeeper Peter Bonetti the wrong way before stroking the ball into the empty net and sinking to his knees to soak up the adulation of the crowd.
People toss Best’s name around whenever the discussion turns to unfulfilled potential or sportsmen who threw it all away.
Yet even though he was effectively finished at the highest level at only 26, he still gifted the British public nine years of sustained brilliance, which is a legacy few others will match.
I had the opportunity to meet him once, around 15 years ago. He and Denis Law were at STV’s studios in Cowcaddens to promote something or other and the STV press officer, Stephen McCrossan, asked me whether I’d like to come up and meet them.
Had this been an interview opportunity, I would have jumped at it but, not wishing to bore the great man with the kind of gushing platitudes he’d been brushing aside for decades, I declined, although I did provide Stephen with some books and videos to be autographed.
I’ve often regretted that decision: I should have gone, if only to say thanks for the memories.
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